When natural disasters account for anthropogenic catastrophes

The importance of Natural Hazard Impact Assessment

In 2005, New Orleans levees broke under the pressure of Hurricane Katrina, causing the flooding of about 80% of the city and at least 986 human deaths [1]. On 11 March 2011, a major earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a 15-meters tsunami that caused a nuclear accident in Fukushima [2]. These two events are recent reminders of the power of natural hazards to interact with human infrastructures in harmful ways.

This video depicts the consequences of the damage the tsunami generated to the Fukushima Daiichi reactors [4]:

Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) usually account for natural hazards that could result from a project but pay less attention to potential impacts of the environment on the proposed project [3]. In the light of such events however, integrating natural hazards more thoroughly within the EIA process becomes a necessity.

This can be achieved through the use of Natural Hazard Impact Assessment (NHIA) defined by the Caribbean Development Bank as: « A study undertaken to identify, predict and evaluate natural hazard impacts associated with a new development or the extension of an existing facility (from existing hazards as well as those which may result from the project). This is achieved through an assessment of the natural hazards that are likely to affect or result from the project and an assessment of the project’s vulnerability and risk of loss from hazards. An NHIA is an integral component of and extension to the environmental review process and environmental impact assessment in that it encourages explicit consideration and mitigation of natural hazard risk. » [3]

A NHIA guide to EIA practitioners

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Fully and explicitly investigating the relationship between a proposed project and natural hazards is not only essential in disaster-prone regions such as Japan or the Caribbean [3], but also for any future project proposed in hazard-prone areas.

To ensure natural disaster risk reduction through the project cycle, EIA practitioners can and should refer to Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) and Caribbean Community (CARICOM) 2004 guidelines presented in the Sourcebook on the Integration of Natural Hazards into the Environmental Impact Assessment [3]:
– Section 1 presents the rationale behind the addition of an NHIA component to the generic EIA process.
– Section 2 details how to integrate considerations related to natural hazards in every step of the EIA process. For instance, the project description should include information on soil characteristics, slope and drainage, proximity to rivers and coasts, and hazard or damage history in the area.
– Section 3 discusses the role of natural hazard risk considerations within the Cumulative Effects part of the EIA procedure.
– Section 4 provides examples of the framework implementation at the national level in the Caribbean that could serve regulators and policy-makers.
– Appendices give adequate tools, checklists, and methodologies for practitioners to implement NHIA-EIA studies.

Advantages of the NHIA-EIA Framework

Overall, NHIA intends to strengthen EIA practitioners’ vision of exposure and vulnerability to natural hazards as an environmental issue [3]. The set of tools and methodology developed in the Caribbean innovates in the way it copes with natural hazard risk in EIA in a preventive manner, rather than through traditional emergency response to disasters. This is essential in a world where the frequency and magnitude of natural events are increasing with change in climate.

The crucial contribution of NHIA to cumulative effects assessment is an important lesson to learn, especially because Cumulative Effects Assessment is increasingly accepted as the best practice for impact assessment [3]. The New Orleans and Fukushima events illustrate well significant environmental and social impacts that may arise from the combined action of natural hazards and infrastructure failure.


[1] Plyer, A. (2014). ‘Fact for Features: Katrina Impact’, The Data Center [Online]. Available at: http://www.datacenterresearch.org/data-resources/katrina/facts-for-impact/ [Accessed 8 February 2015]

[2] World Nuclear Association (2015). ‘Fukushima Accident’ [Online]. Available at: http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Safety-and-Security/Safety-of-Plants/Fukushima-Accident/%5BAccessed 8 February 2015]

[3] Caribbean Development Bank and Caribbean Community (2004).  Sourcebook on the Integration of Natural Hazards into the Environmental Impact [Electronic]. Available at: http://www.caribank.org/uploads/2012/03/Source-Book5.pdf [Accessed 8 February 2015]

[4] Nature Video (2011). Fukushima nuclear crisis, six months later [Online Video]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCNFMoe8ASI %5BAccessed 10 February 2015]


Exploratory drilling in Cacouna (Quebec): a flaw within the Environmental Assessment process?

By Alice Couturier,

Recent developments in the Cacouna area, located on the South shore of the St. Lawrence River estuary, are an incentive to question the EA process for big energy projects in Quebec and in Canada. Preliminary drilling operations sparked a burning debate due to their potential impacts on a particular endangered species. These operations are part of a bigger project to build a pipeline to transport oil from the Alberta oil sands, along with a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal in Gros-Cacouna, which has been submitted to the National Energy Board (Arsenault, 2014).


Plans for the Energy East Pipeline and its ports (Source: Radio-Canada; extracted from CBC News, 11 September 2014):

On September 23rd, the Quebec Superior Court issued an injunction that forced the Albertan energy company- TransCanada Corporation- to immediately cease exploratory drilling in Cacouna until October 15th. The investigation concluded that the decision to deliver the certificate of authorization was based on insufficient information and may be unreasonable from a jurisprudence perspective (Superior Court of Quebec, 2014).

The four environmental groups that issued the demand were concerned by the threat posed by noise from drilling operations to the St Lawrence beluga whale species survival (CBC News, 2014). This relict population – geographically isolated from arctic beluga populations- figures among threatened species protected under the Species at Risk Act (Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2013; Joint Review Panel & BAPE, 2006). Commercial whaling prior to 1979 greatly decreased the number of individuals, from about 10,000 before 1885 to below 1,000 today, with no sign of recovery (Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2013). Risks associated with avoidance behaviours are increased because the area is important for the belugas’ reproduction, and because exploratory work was planned during the crucial breeding and nursing period (CBC News, 2014; Superior Court, 2014; Joint Review Panel & BAPE, 2006).

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Map of the beluga whale habitat in the St Lawrence River estuary (Source: Robert Michaud, GREMM; Jeanine Lee, The Gazette):

That the certificate of authorization for exploratory drilling was issued in the first place is highly suspect! Especially if we consider that the 2006 public hearings report of a joint review panel between the federal and provincial Ministries of the Environment already established the importance of the area for belugas’ feeding and reproductive habits (Joint Panel Report: 78-79). The same report referred to scientific groups stating it was “unthinkable to authorize” operations from the month of June to October, which would scare the belugas away from the area (the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals, in Joint Review Panel: 27 & 85).

Surprising fact: this EIA report was among the documents analyzed prior to the delivery of the authorization certificate (Superior Court, 2014)! However, although the panel mentioned them, it did not include the GREMM’s advice within its official recommendations (Cacouna.Qc, 2006).

This case study hence highlights the potential existence of biases within the Canadian EIA process with regards to big energy projects. According to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (2007):

– the 2006 public hearing and joint review panel were designed to meet the requirements of both the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) and the Quebec Environment Quality Act;

– and, the panel report has been approved by the responsible authorities for the project under CEAA requirements, namely the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and Transport Canada (TC).

And yet a drilling permit for the Energy Cacouna project was granted despite significant risks to an endangered species. Then, how much information gets lost when projects are transferred from one governmental structure to another? Are there sufficient efforts to reconnect Environmental Assessments studies associated with different phases of a same project?

The media and the public seem to blame Quebec’s Minister of the Environment, David Heurtel, as he signed the permit for exploratory drilling in Cacouna. But is it really one individual’s fault? Or is it the whole EIA system/process that should be refined?



Arsenault, J. (2014). ‘TransCanada’s Cacouna Drilling Temporarily Halted For Belugas’, 23 Sept, The Huffington Post, Business, Canada, 7 Oct, [Online], Available: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/09/23/transcanada-cacouna-drilling_n_5871212.html [3 Oct 2014]

Cacouna.Qc (2006) Cacouna: beluga whales are not worth much according to BAPE report, [Online], 14 December, Available: http://cacouna.net/projetmethanier_e.htm [4 Oct 2014]

Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (2007) Archived – Government of Canada’s Response to the Report of the Joint Review Panel on the Proposed Development of the Cacouna Energy LNG Terminal Project, [Online], 10 July, Available: http://www.ceaa-acee.gc.ca/052/document-html-eng.cfm?did=22253 [5 Oct 2014].

CBC News (2014) TransCanada work on St. Lawrence port suspended by Quebec court order, [Online], 23 Sept, Available: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/transcanada-work-on-st-lawrence-port-suspended-by-quebec-court-order-1.2775613 [3 Oct 2014].

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (2013) Aquatic Species at Risk – Beluga Whale (St. Lawrence Estuary population), [Online], 22 July, Available: http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/species-especes/species-especes/belugaStLa-eng.htm [4 Oct 2014]

Joint Review Panel & BAPE (2006). Cacouna Energy LNG Terminal Project, [Electronic], Report 230, November, Available: http://www.ceaa-acee.gc.ca/050/documents/18338/18338E.pdf [5 Oct 2014].

TransCanada (2007) TransCanada and Petro-Canada receive approval from the Québec Government for the Cacouna Energy Project, [Online], 27 June, Available: http://www.transcanada.com/3106.html [3 Oct 2014].

Superior Court of Quebec (2014). Jugement (Injonction Interlocutoire), [Electronic], 23 September, Available: http://www.cqde.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Jugement_14_09_23.pdf [5 Oct 2014]

Vendeville, G. (2014) ‘Couillard says Cacouna drilling necessary’, The Montreal Gazette, [Online], 24 Sept, Available: http://www.montrealgazette.com/Couillard+says+Cacouna+drilling+necessary/10232763/story.html?__federated=1 [3 Oct 2014]

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